April 27, 1927 – January 30, 2006
The widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King helped lead the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
Mrs. King’s most prominent role may have been in the years after her husband’s 1968 assassination when she took on the leadership of the struggle for racial equality herself and became active in the Women’s Movement.
Scott King was the third of four children born to Obadiah “Obe” Scott (1899–1998) and Bernice McMurray Scott (1904–1996) in Marion, Alabama. The Scott family had owned a farm since the American Civil War, but were not particularly wealthy. During the Great Depression the Scott children picked cotton to help earn money. Ms. King’s father Obe, was the first black person in their neighborhood to own a truck. He had a barber shop in their home. He also owned a lumber mill, which was burned down by white neighbors.
Though lacking formal education themselves, Coretta Scott’s parents intended for all of their children to be educated. Coretta quoted her mother as having said, “My children are going to college, even if it means I only have but one dress to put on.”
Coretta Scott and Martin Luther King, Jr., were married on June 18, 1953, on the lawn of her mother’s house; the ceremony was performed by Martin Jr.’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr.. Coretta had the vow to obey her husband removed from the ceremony, which was unusual for the time. After completing her degree in voice and piano at the New England Conservatory, she moved with her husband to Montgomery, Alabama in September 1954. Mrs. King recalled: “After we married, we moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where my husband had accepted an invitation to be the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Before long, we found ourselves in the middle of the Montgomery bus boycott, and Martin was elected leader of the protest movement. As the boycott continued, I had a growing sense that I was involved in something so much greater than myself, something of profound historic importance. I came to the realization that we had been thrust into the forefront of a movement to liberate oppressed people, not only in Montgomery but also throughout our country, and this movement had worldwide implications. I felt blessed to have been called to be a part of such a noble and historic cause.” Coretta Scott King played an extremely important role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Martin wrote of her that, “I am indebted to my wife Coretta, without whose love, sacrifices, and loyalty neither life nor work would bring fulfillment. She has given me words of consolation when I needed them and a well-ordered home where Christian love is a reality.”
Not long after her husband’s assassination in 1968, Coretta approached the African American entertainer and activist Josephine Baker to take her husband’s place as leader of The Civil Rights Movement. After many days of thinking it over Baker declined, stating that her twelve adopted children (known as the “rainbow tribe”) were ” … too young to lose their mother.” Shortly after that Coretta decided to take the helm of the movement herself.
Coretta Scott King broadened her focus to include women’s rights, LGBT rights, economic issues, world peace, and various other causes. As early as December 1968, she called for women to “unite and form a solid block of women power to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war,” during a Solidarity Day speech.
As leader of the movement, Coretta Scott King founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. She served as the center’s president and CEO from its inception until she passed the reins of leadership to son Dexter Scott King.
She published her memoirs, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1969.
Every year after the assassination of her husband in 1968, Coretta attended a commemorative service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta to mark his birthday on January 15. She fought for years to make it a national holiday. Murray M. Silver, an Atlanta attorney, made the appeal at the services on January 14, 1979. Coretta Scott King later confirmed that it was the “…best, most productive appeal ever…” Coretta Scott King was finally successful in this in 1986, when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was made a federal holiday.